Brutal Force

A suspicious death in police custody and a comatose prisoner raise new charges of misconduct as Amnesty International blasts the NYPD

The stoic attendant at Brooklyn's Kings County Hospital morgue did not have all the answers to the questions Carmen Torres lobbed at him as she gazed in disbelief at a coroner's mug shots of her dead cousin.

"What happened to her?" Torres, 48, tearfully demanded.

Two grim photographs she'd carefully inspected on the afternoon of October 1 seemed to prove that the body of Yvette Marin Kessler—a 36-year-old heroin addict who was the mother of a month-old baby and five other children—bore marks from a beating.

Jean Charles lies in a coma at Brooklyn Hospital.
Jean Charles lies in a coma at Brooklyn Hospital.

"I don't know," the attendant said, shrugging his shoulders. "She was brought in that way."

Torres reluctantly signed one of the pictures, a routine rite of identification that the relative of a deceased person goes through at a city morgue. She tugged at them slightly as the attendant tightened his grasp. He said that the only way she could have the photos was by showing him a subpoena.

"Those pictures better not disappear!" Torres warned.

Later that day, after making funeral arrangements, Torres contacted the office of Dr. Beverly Leffers, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Kessler. According to Torres, Leffers said the family would have to wait another two or three months to learn how Kessler died.

Write a letter, she was told.

Ellen Borakove, a spokeswoman for the medical examiner's office, says Torres misunderstood Leffers. "We always let the family know what the cause of death is," says Borakove. "She was apparently referring to her receiving the written autopsy report."

"By the way, what hospital did she die in?" Torres remembers asking Leffers.

"She died at Central Booking," the pathologist reportedly replied.

Given the runaround Carmen Torres has gotten since her cousin died, she no longer has any doubts: someone is trying to cover up the circumstances surrounding Kessler's death. Borakove says that the medical examiner's office planned to issue its preliminary findings on October 13.

The family has hired a lawyer.

"Based on information we have, we are alleging that the police beat Yvette Kessler," says attorney Casilda Roper-Simpson, who, with her partner, Carl W. Thomas, is representing the family. A source in the 75th Precinct told the attorneys that two officers and a detective beat Kessler. "Apparently, she kept asking to go to the bathroom, and I guess they got annoyed," says Roper-Simpson. Citing the source and two other alleged witnesses, she adds, "They removed two other inmates from the cell and beat her."

Police say the case is still under investigation, but maintain there is no evidence that Kessler was abused by jailers. They say that on September 28, she was arrested in the East New York section of Brooklyn on unspecified drug charges. Those charges eventually were dropped, but police said she was held on an outstanding warrant from Norfolk, Virginia. The reason for the warrant was not disclosed. (Torres told the Voice that the cops were mistaken or were deliberately being misleading about the warrant. She says there was a warrant for Kessler's arrest in New York because she failed to complete a court-ordered sentence of community service for a drug offense in Virginia. "She was pregnant and couldn't finish it," Torres adds.)

According to police, Kessler was transported at midnight to Central Booking at 120 Schermerhorn Street in downtown Brooklyn. Two hours later, she complained of abdominal pains, and was taken to Long Island College Hospital, where she was treated and released. At about 5:30, she was returned to a cell at Central Booking. At 8 a.m., one of the women in the cell notified officers that Kessler was unconscious. EMS technicians pronounced her dead at the scene.

Roper-Simpson says that another of Kessler's cellmates saw cops come into the cell and beat her. And a man arrested on drug charges with Kessler, who was in a cell nearby, claims he heard a female screaming. Both are afraid to go public with their allegations, Roper-Simpson says. The attorneys allowed the Voice to examine independent photos of the body, which show facial bruises and a broken nose.

Carmen Torres recalls that before leaving her home in the Cypress Hills section of Brooklyn at about 4 p.m. on September 28, Kessler complained of stomach cramps and a tingling sensation in her arm, but speculated that she was perhaps feeling ill due to postpartum pain. She argues, however, that Kessler's symptoms could not have resulted in death.

"It was not right for the family to bury her and not know what she died of," says Roper-Simpson.

As allegations of police brutality in Yvette Kessler's death came to light, civil rights advocates proclaimed that, on the heels of the NYPD's violent disruption of the Million Youth March in Harlem, the incident capped a particularly brutal September—one of the most notorious periods in the department's so-called "quality of life" crackdown.

And that was before it was revealed that six days prior to Kessler's death, Jean Charles, a Haitian immigrant with no known history of medical problems and no history of criminal wrongdoing, had been discovered comatose in the back seat of a police van.

Both Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Police Commissioner Howard Safir, who have been accused of coddling brutal cops, insisted that in each incident police did not use excessive force.

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